Arlington, Va.—Will the man at the center of one of the nation’s worst abuses of civil forfeiture finally get justice—specifically the dismissal of the groundless forfeiture action against him that seeks to take his family’s budget motel? Today, Russ Caswell, the owner of the Motel Caswell, in Tewksbury, Mass., filed a motion in federal district court asking the judge to dismiss the civil forfeiture complaint filed against his motel by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“This outrageous forfeiture action should never have been filed in the first place,” said Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, the nonprofit public interest law firm that represents the Caswell family. “The Caswells have suffered for too long living under the cloud of forfeiture abuse and hopefully this motion will end their ordeal right now.”
Russ and his family have owned and operated the Motel Caswell for two generations. The motel, which Russ’ father built in 1955 and that the Caswells now own free and clear, was supposed to provide a steady income for his family and to fund Russ and his wife’s retirement. But now, the Caswells may have their motel, worth more than one million dollars, taken from them by local and federal law enforcement officials through a process known as “civil forfeiture.”
If law enforcement officials succeed, the Caswells would end up with nothing and the law enforcement agencies would split the bounty through a process called “equitable sharing” in which the local agency would get 80 percent of the proceeds and the federal government would keep the rest. This money could be used to pad the budgets of the police department, thus giving it a direct financial incentive not to pursue justice, but rather to “police for profit,” which is exactly what is going on in the Caswell case.
Equitable sharing allows officials to circumvent Massachusetts state law, which is more protective of property owners like the Caswells, and to use the more lenient (and more profitable) federal law. The federal government bases its forfeiture complaint on the fact that a tiny fraction of people who have stayed at the Motel Caswell during the past 20 years have been arrested for crimes. The Caswells themselves have never been convicted let alone even accused of a crime.
The summary judgment motion filed today asks the court to hold that the equitable sharing program of the federal government violates the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which protects states and citizens from overreaching on the part of the federal government. Because the forfeiture of the Motel Caswell would destroy Russ’ livelihood, the motion also asks the court to hold that it would violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on “excessive fines.”
“Just this year, the U.S. Supreme Court held that citizens have the ability to sue the federal government under the 10th Amendment because it is the individual, not state and local governments, which are ultimately protected by the Constitution’s limits on federal overreaching,” said Larry Salzman, a staff attorney at the Institute. “Here, the federal government and the local police department are trying to do an unconstitutional end-run around state protections for property owners like Ms. Caswell.”
If the court grants the motion, the forfeiture action will be dismissed. If the court denies the motion, a trial will be held on the remaining claims in the case sometime next year.